Learning Through Play

Learning through play. Play-based curriculum. 

You’ll hear these phrases a lot from your classroom teachers. You heard me touch on this at Parent Orientation on September 10th, when I spoke about the primary importance of social and emotional development in a play based environment for young children.  What do we mean when we use these phrases? What do our children learn as they play?

Sitting in a preK classroom yesterday, I watched as three girls and two boys gathered busily around a large bucket of magnatiles. As the children crouched and jostled in a way that only four year olds can, a tower began to emerge. “We’re building the tallest tower ever, right?” And with that, they were off. As they built, squeals of, “No, that one doesn’t go there!” and “Hey, that’s mine!” were frequent.  Regardless, the tower went up. They first used large squares, to establish the parameters of the tower and to provide a sturdy base. Next, they moved onto smaller squares; it took four small squares to match the size of one large square. Not-so-slowly, a square-based tower grew and grew until it met the children’s chests.

At one point, the action stopped.  One of the students who had spied me observing called me over: “Can you get the piece that fell in?” A square had fallen into the center of the tower, and the walls were now clearly too tall for a child’s arm to reach in and pick it up.  I showed them that, in fact, the walls were too tall even for my arm.  One child suggested, “Maybe we could connect things to get it.” She was on to something; yet the idea proved too abstract and distant for the children to act on. “Maybe we can take away some blocks to get it.” A-ha, I thought – she’s got it.  I assumed she would take down most of the tower in order to get to the block at the bottom, and then painstakingly rebuild the tower all over again.  She proved me wrong (as they always do) – in a remarkable display of both efficiency and engineering acuity, she removed one large square from the base of the tower, snaked her fingers in, removed the dropped block, and replaced the large square. Tower and square were both saved!

When the children reached the silently-agreed-upon top (they seem to work in concert, knowing as a group when they reached their limit), they began to accessorize.  Abandoning the tower’s squares-only schema, they now turned to triangles.  The children used tall and skinny isosceles triangles, giving the tower a parapet-style with the acute angle of the triangles jutting skyward. With no more room to add another triangle in this fashion, one student turned a triangle upside down (itself a daring move, swimming upstream against the established pattern) and inserted it between two other triangles. To her delight, it stuck; she had made a trapezoid.  Her peers followed suit, and soon each of the four walls to the tower were topped with this shape.  Unsure where to go from here, a student then added another inverted isosceles triangle to the now trapezoidal shape.  She frowned – it looked awkward and wobbly; it wouldn’t do. “That doesn’t work”, she exclaimed to the group, who silently agreed as she discarded the triangle. 

With the four trapezoids now set, the children slowly edged them together, forming a cut-off pyramid. One child placed a square atop this, and quickly the other children added an equilateral triangle to each side of the square. Pushing these newest triangles together, they made a pyramid; they now had a point at the top of the tower. It was complete. Their tower was roughly three feet tall with a square base and a graduated top consisting of two tiers, the lower made up of trapezoids and the upper made up of equilateral triangles.

Clearly pleased with themselves, they took a brief moment to step back and relish in their accomplishments.  Within that moment, a member of their group was startled by a noise elsewhere in the classroom.  She turned around a bit too abruptly, gently jostling the tower. It proved too much – the tower crashed down.  Amidst the calamity of finger-pointing and blaming that ensued, one girl quietly picked out the large squares and began to rebuild the base.  A teacher then commented, “Boys and girls, I noticed she is starting to make the tower again.” And with that, the journey began yet again…

So, what do children learn through play? What does a curriculum look like in a play-based social environment, without the explicit guidance or instruction of a teacher?  We see in this brief example, which took place over just three or four minutes, that children:

Take initiative in play.  When the child’s voice is allowed to take center-stage in a classroom setting, children design their own projects and their own curriculum.  The intrinsic motivation that children bring to play tasks is the best and most powerful learning tool that we have at our disposal.

Learn social collaboration and negotiation in play. The power of play overrides a child’s self-centered worldview. Concepts of “mine” and “no” begin to dissolve as children are exposed to the unmistakable allure of peer recognition.

Innately incorporate complex cognitive concepts in play. Geometry, fractions, engineering: these are regular parts of elementary school curricula.  Were these foisted upon our children in a didactic setting, they would be lost.  In the authentic and pragmatic environment of play, children elevate their level of understanding and challenge each other to new heights.

Develop resilience in play. Perhaps my favorite moment of the play was when one student quietly picked out the large squares after the tower collapsed.  She served as a model for the others, who all took away from the experience that the act of creation matters more than pointing fingers.

Experience mastery in play. You’ll notice the only adult-quote in this story was at the very end.  When children are given time and space to play in spontaneous, joyful environments, an interesting thing happens. They begin with whimsy, but culminate in mastery. A stress-free play environment nurtures this creative productivity.